Let the Lights Go out so Long as the Pensions Are Paid

From Theodore Dalrymple:

Last night the streetlights in my pleasant little English market town were switched off at midnight. In fact they’ve been switching them off at midnight for two months, but I have not been here to notice it. However, in this little development (or is it a reversal of development?) may be seen all the economic troubles of the whole Western world.

The lights are switched off as a cost-saving measure, not because of the aesthetic and cultural advantages of darkness (which, in my opinion, do actually exist), or because there is anything wrong with the electricity supply. Private houses are unaffected. You can still burn the midnight oil if you want to.

But why do costs need to be cut? A brief description of some of the town’s finances might be helpful. Its most highly paid official receives in emoluments nearly 20 percent of the town’s income through local taxation. The payment of pensions to past employees, which are completely unfunded and must be found from current income, consume another 20 to 25 percent of that tax revenue. Two years ago a former employee took the council to a labor tribunal for wrongful dismissal, and the council spent 66 percent of its income in that year on legal fees. (The employee’s complaints against the council were not upheld, but that was scarcely of any comfort to the taxpayers, for the costs were not recoverable—even though natural justice required that she should be driven into penury and made homeless for the rest of her life to pay for her legal action, which was both frivolous and dishonest.)

Even if it provided no services at all, the council would still run at a deficit if it continued only with its essential business, which is to pay the salaries and pensions of those who work in it, and the various parasitical rent-seekers, like employment lawyers, who live at its expense. And so the bureaucracy (and its hangers-on) does not exist to serve the public, but the public exists to serve the bureaucracy. In the past, the council had reserves to meet its deficits, but these have been run into the ground, and it has therefore had to appeal to other, larger sources of public funds for help, which themselves run on the same great pyramid-principle as that of the town council. Indeed, the whole country, the whole continent, the whole hemisphere is run on that principle.

But what cannot go on forever will not go on forever. The music, if it has not yet stopped completely, is slowing down and growing fainter. The town council finds it more and more difficult to run a deficit, and since it must continue to pay its salaries and pensions or lose its primary purpose altogether, the only option that remains to it is to cut services such as lighting and rubbish collection (already down to once a fortnight, so that many people find themselves not only paying the council for rubbish collection but disposing of their own rubbish).

The curious thing is that the suppression of services has occasioned no public outcry. Why not? The first thing to mention is that a large proportion of the population pays no local taxes—it is too poor, too handicapped, too unemployed, too ill, too unwilling, too dependent on the state already—to do so. Such people feel no outrage because in their hearts they know, as Lear put it, nothing will come of nothing.

As for the taxpayers, they have had a long schooling in low expectations from their taxes: they may pay 40 per cent (80 per cent within living memory) of their income above a certain level in taxes, as well as taxes on everything that they buy or do. But they would not be so foolish as to conclude that therefore their children will be properly educated by the state, or that they will be well looked-after when they are ill. That would not be the case even if they paid 100 percent of their income to the state. So it doesn’t surprise them that the council will do anything rather than reduce payments to its staff and hangers-on. They are resigned to it, and to the council’s motto adapted from the old Roman one. Not “Let the heavens fall so long as justice is done,” but “Let the lights go out so long as the pensions are paid.”

How have we arrived at this situation, which might seem bizarre to a Martian arriving on Earth for the first time? I think the root cause of it is fiat money, the conjuring of currency out of nothing by the central banks. Fiat money has accustomed governments to the idea that they can go on borrowing and spending money forever without ever having to pay it back. This alters their attitude to deficit spending, which is not as the occasion requires (as Keynes envisaged), but permanent, the way we live now. And it alters the whole character of the citizenry as well. For them prudence becomes foolishness and foolishness prudence; speculation is necessary for all who do not want to end up impoverished, and there can be no such thing as enough, even for those who are not greedy by nature, for money is no longer a store of value. More, more, more is necessary, if you want to keep what little you already have.

It was the First World War that taught modern governments to spend in order to pursue ends that they could not afford, in this case mass slaughter lasting four years. Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, said on the eve of war that “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” He did not foresee that, just over a century later, the lamps would go out in my little town, because the town adopted the same way of financing its activities as that in which the First World War was financed, with the results that we all know only too well.

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Spineless

Rob Lowe

From Charles C.W. Cooke:

It just gets worse. Yesterday evening, I lamented the astonishing news that the American film industry was being dictated to by a bunch of North Korean hackers. At the time of writing, the following had happened:

First, Sony Pictures, which produced the film, canceled tomorrow’s inaugural showing. (“Security concerns,” natch.) Then the Carmike Cinemas chain, which owns 278 theaters in 41 states, announced that it would not be showing it at all. In the last few hours, the Hollywood Reporter has suggested, the other four giants of American cinema — Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, and Cineplex Entertainment — elected to join in the boycott. And, finally, the studio pulled the December 25 release entirely

Now, per Reuters, Sony has pulled the whole thing:

Sony Pictures has canceled the release of a comedy on the fictional assassination of North Korea’s leader, in what appears to be an unprecedented victory for Pyongyang and its abilities to wage cyber-warfare.

Hackers who said they were incensed by the film attacked Sony Corp (6758.T) last month, leaking documents that drew global headlines and distributing unreleased films on the Internet.

Washington may soon officially announce that the North Korean government was behind the attack, a U.S. government source said.

This decision is not restricted to theaters:

“Sony has no further release plans for the film,” a Sony spokeswoman said on Wednesday when asked whether the movie would be released later in theaters or as video on demand.

In other words, a group of computer experts — which may or may not be backed by the North Korean government — has managed to convince a major American industry to write off a $44 million investment because . . . they don’t like some of its jokes. How utterly grotesque. How shameful. How antithetical to all of those principles for which the people of the United States are supposed to stand.

Worse still, those hackers have managed to convince Hollywood to cancel future projects, too. Deadline Hollywood reports:

The chilling effect of the Sony Pictures hack and terrorist threats against The Interview are reverberating. New Regency has scrapped another project that was to be set in North Korea. The untitled thriller, set up in October, was being developed by director Gore Verbinski as a star vehicle for Foxcatcher star Steve Carell. The paranoid thriller written by Steve Conrad was going to start production in March. Insiders tell me that under the current circumstances, it just makes no sense to move forward. The location won’t be transplanted. Fox declined to distribute it, per a spokesman.

If this is to be our approach, why not formalize the arrangement and run every script idea past our enemies before production starts? In fact, why not submit all creative speech to the roving gangs of outrage merchants and armed hecklers to which our appeasement is granting hope? I daresay that most books, movies, newspapers, television shows, and websites contain material that someone doesn’t like. Why not include them in the party, too? Sure, by the time that an idea has been scrutinized by Tehran, Moscow, and the University of Berkeley it will probably have been stripped of all its charm. But we wouldn’t want anybody to be upset, would we?

I’ve heard people arguing that this reflects “only on Sony.” But it doesn’t, really. It reflects on the many, many theater chains that canceled their screenings. It reflects upon a general corporate culture that is just too damn risk averse. And it reflects upon the zeitgeist, within which caving to pressure from the “offended” has become the unlovely norm. We are now reaching a point at which no college commencement speaker is permitted to do his thing unless he has been neutered, read whatever catechism is en vogue this week, and then had his entire past vetted by the most boring, self-indulgent, ignorant people in the world. George Will wasn’t allowed to speak at Scripps because a few of its students objected to a column he’d written in a newspaper. What exactly did we think was going to happen when the censors threatened to turn up with guns?

America doesn’t feel very free, or very brave, today.

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The Sacred Circle of the Oppressed

From Stanley Kurtz:

What do America’s college students want? They want to be oppressed. More precisely, a surprising number of students at America’s finest colleges and universities wish to appear as victims — to themselves, as well as to others — without the discomfort of actually experiencing victimization. Here is where global warming comes in. The secret appeal of campus climate activism lies in its ability to turn otherwise happy, healthy, and prosperous young people into an oppressed class, at least in their own imaginings. Climate activists say to the world, “I’ll save you.” Yet deep down they’re thinking, “Oppress me.”

In his important new book, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings, French intellectual gadfly Pascal Bruckner does the most thorough job yet of explaining the climate movement as a secular religion, an odd combination of deformed Christianity and reconstructed Marxism. (You can find Bruckner’s excellent article based on the book here.) Bruckner describes a historical process wherein “the long list of emblematic victims — Jews, blacks, slaves, proletarians, colonized peoples — was replaced, little by little, with the Planet.” The planet, says Bruckner, “has become the new proletariat that must be saved from exploitation.”

But why? Bruckner finds it odd that a “mood of catastrophe” should prevail in the West, the most well-off part of the world. The reason, I think, is that the only way to turn the prosperous into victims is to threaten the very existence of a world they otherwise command.

And why should the privileged wish to become victims? To alleviate guilt and to appropriate the victim’s superior prestige. In the neo-Marxist dispensation now regnant on our college campuses, after all, the advantaged are ignorant and guilty while the oppressed are innocent and wise. The initial solution to this problem was for the privileged to identify with “struggling groups” by wearing, say, a Palestinian keffiyeh. Yet better than merely empathizing with the oppressed is to be oppressed. This is the climate movement’s signal innovation.

We can make sense of Bruckner’s progression of victimhood from successive minorities to the globe itself by considering the lives of modern-day climate activists. Let’s begin with Bill McKibben, the most influential environmental activist in the country, and leader of the campus fossil-fuel divestment movement.

In a 1996 piece titled “Job and Matthew,” McKibben describes his arrival at college in 1978 as a liberal-leaning student with a suburban Protestant background. “My leftism grew more righteous in college,” he says, “but still there was something pro forma about it.” The problem? “Being white, male, straight, and of impeccably middle-class background, I could not realistically claim to be a victim of anything.” At one point, in what he calls a “loony” attempt to claim the mantle of victimhood, McKibben nearly convinced himself that he was part Irish so he could don a black armband as Bobby Sands and fellow members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army died in a hunger strike. Yet even as he failed to persuade himself he was Irish, McKibben continued to enthusiastically support every leftist-approved victim group he could find. Nonetheless, something was missing. None of these causes seemed truly his own. When McKibben almost singlehandedly turned global warming into a public issue in 1989, his problem was solved. Now everyone could be a victim.

Wen Stephenson, a contributing writer at The Nation and an enthusiastic supporter of McKibben’s anti-fossil-fuel crusade, is one of the sharpest observers of the climate movement. In March, Stephenson published a profile of some of the student climate protesters he’d gotten to know best. Their stories look very much like McKibben’s description of his own past.

Stephenson’s thesis is that, despite vast differences between the upper-middle-class college students who make up much of today’s climate movement and southern blacks living under segregation in the 1950s, climate activists think of themselves on the model of the early civil-rights protesters. When climate activists court arrest through civil disobedience, they imagine themselves to be reliving the struggles of persecuted African Americans staging lunch-counter sit-ins at risk of their lives. Today’s climate protesters, Stephenson writes,“feel themselves oppressed by powerful, corrupt forces beyond their control.” And they fight “not only for people in faraway places but, increasingly, for themselves.”

One young activist, a sophomore at Harvard, told Stephenson that she grew up “privileged in a poor rural town.” Inspired by the civil-rights movement, her early climate activism was undertaken “in solidarity” with Third World peoples: “I saw climate change as this huge human rights abuse against people who are already disadvantaged in our global society. . . . I knew theoretically there could be impacts on the U.S. But I thought, I’m from a rich, developed country, my parents are well-off, I know I’m going to college, and it’s not going to make a difference to my life. But especially over this past year, I’ve learned that climate change is a threat to me.” When one of her fellow protesters said: “You know, I think I could die of climate change. That could be the way I go,” the thought stuck with her. “You always learn about marginalized groups in society, and think about how their voices don’t have as much power, and then suddenly you’re like, ‘Wait, that’s exactly what I am, with climate change.’”

The remaining biographical accounts in Stephenson’s piece repeat these themes. Climate activists see themselves as privileged, are deeply influenced by courses on climate change and on “marginalized” groups they’ve been exposed to in high school and college, and treat the climate apocalypse as their personal admissions pass to the sacred circle of the oppressed.

It may be that these activists, eyes opened by fortuitous education, are merely recognizing the reality of our impending doom. Or might this particular apocalypse offer unacknowledged psychic rewards? These students could easily be laid low by an economic crisis brought on by demographic decline and the strains of baby-boomer retirement on our entitlement system. Yet marriage and children aren’t a priority, although they could help solve the problem. Why? Many dooms beckon. How has climate change won out?

Last academic year, the National Association of Scholars released a widely discussed report called “What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students.” The report chronicles what I’ve called a “reverse island” effect. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the classic liberal-arts curriculum first came under challenge, courses in ethnic and gender studies were like tiny islands in a sea of traditionalism. Politicized in ways that were incompatible with liberal education, these ideologically based “studies” programs were generally dismissed as necessary concessions to the nascent multicultural zeitgeist.

Today the situation is reversed. Not only have the ideologically driven “studies” programs taken over a large share of the college curriculum, but many courses in conventional departments reflect the underlying assumptions of the various minority-studies concentrations. Today, classic liberal-arts courses have themselves been turned into tiny besieged islands, while the study of alleged oppression represents the leading approach at America’s colleges and universities.

In this atmosphere, students cannot help wishing to see themselves as members of a persecuted group. Climate activism answers their existential challenges and gives them a sense of crusading purpose in a lonely secular world. The planet, as Bruckner would have it, is the new proletariat. Yet substitute “upper-middle-class” for “planet,” and the progression of victimhood is explained. Global warming allows the upper-middle-class to join the proletariat, cloaking erstwhile oppressors in the mantle of righteous victimhood.

Insight into the quasi-religious motivations that stand behind climate activism cannot finally resolve the empirical controversies at stake in our debate over global warming. Yet understanding climate activism as a cultural phenomenon does yield insight into that debate. The religious character of the climate-change crusade chokes off serious discussion. It stigmatizes reasonable skepticism about climate catastrophism (which is different from questioning the fundamental physics of carbon dioxide’s effect on the atmosphere). Climate apocalypticism drags what ought to be careful consideration of the costs and benefits of various policy options into the fraught world of identity politics. The wish to be oppressed turns into the wish to be morally superior, which turns into the pleasure of silencing alleged oppressors, which turns into its own sort of hatred and oppression.

What do American college students want? I would like to think they are looking for an education in the spirit of classic liberalism, an education that offers them, not a ready-made ideology, but the tools to make an informed choice among the fundamental alternatives in life. The people who run our universities, unfortunately, have taught their students to want something different, and this is what truly oppresses them.

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Tearing at the Very Fabric of the Constitution

From The Patriot Post:

Barack Obama claims to be a “professor of constitutional law,” but a genuine constitutional scholar, George Washington University’s Jonathan Turley, a self-acknowledged liberal Obama supporter, has offered severe criticism of Obama’s “über presidency,” his abuse of executive orders and regulations to bypass Congress.

When asked by Fox News host Megyn Kelly how he would respond “to those who say many presidents have issued executive orders on immigration,” Turley responded, “This would be unprecedented, and I think it would be an unprecedented threat to the balance of powers.”

In July, Turley gave congressional testimony concerning Obama’s abuse of executive orders: “When the president went to Congress and said he would go it alone, it obviously raises a concern. There’s no license for going it alone in our system, and what he’s done is very problematic. He’s told agencies not to enforce some laws [and] has effectively rewritten laws through active interpretation that I find very problematic.”

He continued: “Our system is changing in a dangerous and destabilizing way. What’s emerging is an imperial presidency, an über presidency. … The president’s pledge to effectively govern alone is alarming but what is most alarming is his ability to fulfill that pledge. When a president can govern alone, he can become a government unto himself, which is precisely the danger that the Framers sought to avoid in the establishment of our tripartite system of government. … Obama has repeatedly violated this [separation of powers] doctrine in the circumvention of Congress in areas ranging from health care to immigration law to environmental law. … What we are witnessing today is one of the greatest challenges to our constitutional system in the history of this country. We are in the midst of a constitutional crisis with sweeping implications for our system of government. There could be no greater danger for individual liberty. I think the framers would be horrified. … We are now at the constitutional tipping point for our system. … No one in our system can ‘go it alone’ – not Congress, not the courts, and not the president.”

Turley reiterated this week: “[Obama has] become a government of one. … It’s becoming a particularly dangerous moment if the president is going to go forward, particularly after this election, to defy the will of Congress yet again. … What the president is suggesting is tearing at the very fabric of the Constitution. We have a separation of powers … to protect Liberty, to keep any branch from assuming so much authority that they become a threat to Liberty. … The Democrats are creating something very, very dangerous. They’re creating a president who can go it alone – the very danger that are framers sought to avoid in our Constitution. … I hope he does not get away with it.”

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